The California Symphony's search for a music director continues, and the orchestra certainly isn't lacking for qualified candidates. Sunday afternoon's concert in the Hofmann Theatre at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts brought the latest in a yearlong series of applicants to the stage, and the results were nothing short of outstanding.

As guest conductor, Donato Cabrera became the sixth of seven conductors to step onto the podium to be considered for the post (the organization has been without a music director since the board ousted its founder and first music director, Barry Jekowsky, in 2010; after the final season program, scheduled for performances May 4-5, the new music director will be announced).

As resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and music director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, Donato Cabrera has earned a
As resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and music director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, Donato Cabrera has earned a reputation as a skilled podium presence and a committed advocate for new music. (S.F. Symphony/Courtesy)

Cabrera is no stranger to Bay Area audiences. As resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, music director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra and a former associate conductor of the San Francisco Opera, he's earned a reputation as a skilled podium presence and a committed advocate for new music.

Those qualities were in abundant supply throughout Sunday's program of works by Beethoven, Prokofiev and John Adams. Cabrera, conducting with impressive energy and meticulous focus, drew vibrant, dynamic playing from the ensemble.

The afternoon's centerpiece was a glittering performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, with pianist Haochen Zhang as soloist. Cabrera shaped this radiant score with elegance and precision, and Zhang -- a gold medalist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009 -- was a strong, stylish partner.


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Zhang, a 22-year-old native of China, resists the swooning excess that besets many of his contemporaries in performances of Beethoven's music. In the concerto's first movement, his playing was assured and briskly emphatic; the finale came across with arresting, clear-eyed vigor. If Zhang's performance in the central slow movement seemed to proceed a bit too deliberately, it never sacrificed formal clarity; for his part, Cabrera maintained a firm pulse, eliciting glowing sound from the orchestra -- tender and fluent in the opening of the first movement, firm and propulsive in the rhythmically driven sections.

After intermission, Cabrera achieved even more remarkable results in Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. Composed in 1944 in honor of "the spirit of man," this is one of the great 20th-century masterworks -- richly scored, harmonically inventive and engaging from start to finish. Cabrera led a muscular, full-throttle performance, ideally proportioned and handsomely played. The conductor imparted an unmistakable sense of weight to the mighty first movement and took a painterly approach to the scherzo's tart, edgy melodies, applying dabs of color in brilliant strokes. The slow third movement yielded a dark thicket of sound -- dense, gorgeous and warmhearted -- and the orchestra, bearing down as the movement progressed, sounded magnificent. The finale's blazing high spirits always come as a bit of a surprise, but Cabrera made the intensity of the outcome seem the only logical conclusion.

With the orchestra in such fine form, Sunday's program recalled the Symphony's glory days, as well as its early mission -- to present emerging artists, to explore orchestral masterworks and to showcase living composers.

To accomplish the latter, the program opened with Adams' "Lollapalooza." Composed in 1995 as a birthday gift for British conductor Simon Rattle, the short, single-movement score is a blast -- a roiling concoction of chugging brass, furious strings, insistent woodwinds and offbeat percussion all moving in a single direction like a huge, heavily breathing beast. Adams builds an exquisitely heightened tension in the work, and Cabrera conducted a performance of considerable brio. He was enormously aided by the symphony's percussionists, so let's mention them here: principal timpanist Mark Veregge, Victor Avdienko, Tim Dent, Loren Mach and Stan Muncy. But every section seemed fully engaged, here and throughout the program. In this California Symphony appearance, Cabrera and the orchestra made a fine match.

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